The Fire Raisers – Hen and Chickens, London

Writer: Max Frisch

Music/Lyrics/Director: Michael Ward

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Max Frisch’s status as a playwright has all but vanished in Britain in recent decades. The Swiss writer had links to Bertolt Brecht, but never quite fully adopted the latter’s brand of Epic theatre.

Nevertheless, his two most resonant works, Andorra and The Fire Raisers, the latter of which is revived at the Hen and Chickens, owe a lot to the Brechtian premise of reminding the audience that they are watching a play about Issues with a capital ‘I’.

The play revolves around a well-to-do hair tonic salesman, Gottlieb Beidermann (Darren Ruston), living with his wife and maid in a town that is suffering a spate of arson attacks. The family finds themselves conned into allowing two strangers to stay in their attic, refusing to believe that they might be arsonists despite all the very obvious clues.

For this production, Michael Ward has returned to Michael Bullock’s translation, rather than using Alistair Beaton’s rather newer 2007 adaptation. As a result, the language is one of the biggest barriers between audience and incident: a little too archaic to feel contemporary, not quite stylised enough to feel truly absurdist.

One remedy Ward has sought is to replace sections of dialogue, especially those which Frisch assigns to a Greek chorus of firemen, with songs. This additional element adds some useful variation in tone to Bullock’s script, but it is only when Ruston – who possesses quite the strongest voice of the whole cast – breaks the format to deliver an impassioned, characterful lead vocal as Beidermann finds himself swept up by the conmen’s tactics that the musical additions really work to their fullest potential.

Marius Clements’ Schmitz, the most threatening and charismatic of the conmen, makes an imposing presence from his first appearance. The manner in which the homeless Schmitz uses reverse psychology, and turns the Beidermanns’ reluctance to be seen to be offending anyone against them, is amusing at first. But as he is joined by Jake W Francis’ Eisenring, and they con Beidermann further by telling him a truth so absurd he assumes they must be joking, Frisch’s biting satire begins to take hold.

And even in a production where some of the dialogue is not quite paced well enough to get the full comedic potential from Frisch’s scenario and Bullock’s translation, the essence of the playwright’s point comes through. Written in the early 1950s, Frisch’s work is clearly saying that the rise of the far right and Nazism in Europe twenty years earlier happened under everybody’s noses and in plain sight. As with Andorra, the liberal middle classes who sit back and do nothing (because that would be somebody else’s responsibility) are villainous in their own way, and architects of their own downfall.

That allegory is rather clumsily underlined by Ward’s final song, but the message remains. And with it, a sense that the themes of Max Frisch’s plays have all too chilling a relevance in the modern world.

Continues until November 17 2018 | Image: Contributed

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